By Marshall Garvey
Welcome to the second installment of Levels of Hell, the article series where we delve into the most hated, excruciatingly difficult stages in video game history! The first installment had me spewing acid over the Raid on Sullust from Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, the thought of which still makes me boil months later.
Today’s focus is a level that isn’t nearly as hectic. Given that it’s from Banjo-Kazooie, a beloved adventure game, that means it’s both beautifully rendered and can be navigated without feeling under pressure. But even as the 1998 Rareware classic has taken on a nostalgic glow for those like myself who grew up with it, this level is an exception to that feeling. If anything, it’s more like a shitstain smeared on the canvas of Rareware’s definitive masterpiece. And if you’ve played the game at all, you would have known what it is even if I didn’t put it in the title. It’s the one and only Rusty Bucket Bay. Or, as I recently named it, Rusty Fuck-It Bay.
Located towards the end of the game, Rusty Bucket Bay is first off nowhere near as fun as the previous levels. Think for a moment about the way the other levels make you feel. The sunny tropics of Treasure Trove Cove, the warm holiday feeling of Freezeezy Peak, the ancient intrigue of Gobi’s Valley…each one just teems with its own genuine magic. Rusty Bucket Bay, on the other hand, just feels gritty and impersonal. Granted, as a kid, I loved this level’s design because I grew up studying Titanic and other maritime history. It’s certainly as rife with detail as any other level. Really, the look of the level isn’t the greatest flaw in Rusty Bucket Bay. It’s, well, pretty much everything else.
Most notably, this level has by far the most annoying limitation of any one in the entire game: the water. It’s slick with so much oil, that you have a limited time to breathe even when you’re swimming with your head above it. Additionally, the dock surrounding the ship is spread out and hard to reach, which means you have to swim through the water or climb the funnels and cargo on the Rusty Bucket to get to a lot of places. And for extra insult, the ladders to climb onto the dock are as green as the walls, so you might miss them a few times even when you’re down to your last drop of breath.
Another source of great irritation is how relentlessly hazardous RBB is. A Banjo-Kazooie level will have its share of pitfalls, but they’re usually spread out enough that you can enjoy everything else with ease. Rusty Bucket Bay, meanwhile, is borderline obnoxious in how nearly every crevice can kill you. Some of the cowl vents will suddenly brandish teeth and bite you, and the goddamn *life rafts* even attack you. In many instances, just one hit from them will send you flying into the asphyxiating oil water. And for good measure of frustration, the invincible shark Snacker appears once again to make swimming through a portion of the already lethal water a wicked pain in the ass.
Put this all together, and Rusty Bucket Bay commits a crime that’s unthinkable in a Banjo-Kazooie game: it just isn’t that fun, and instead is pretty stressful. Given its industrial look and sound, if anything, it feels like work. When I played through RBB again in my current Hall of Fame spin for the game, it had been the first time I had experienced it in some 15/16 years. Within minutes, the buoyant feeling of fun and joy that I had rediscovering the game turned into irritation. I felt like every little thing I had to do was a nagging chore, and when I inevitably died, I had no desire to try again.
Most heinous of all about Rusty Bucket Bay is what lies within the ship. There’s a boss fight with a bunch of giant boxes, but as long as you have 10 golden feathers, it’s easy to breeze through. Rather, the REAL pain is brought by the main engine room. Not only are most of the collectibles blocked by propellers, but some of the pipes to walk across will suddenly turn and send you plummeting to your death. One of your tasks in here, naturally, is to push a button that will stop the ship’s rear propellers in order to obtain an elusive Jiggy. Then, you have an insultingly small window of time to leave the engine room, climb up the funnel, run to the ship’s rear, and plunge into the water to grab the Jiggy. And for a final insult, it’s likely you’ll get the Jiggy as time expires, only to be stuck behind the propellers and forced to die by being sliced up or drowning.
The upside to all this drudgery is that it isn’t the last level you get to explore in the game. Rather, Rareware saved the best for last with the sublime Click Clock Wood, a sprawling, scenic area that glides between the four seasons of the year. Thank god that’s indeed the last level. The rain, leaves and snow will easily wash that oily taste out of your mouth before the final showdown with Grunty.
For those who’ve never played it, a video to illustrate the frustration: